The architects who shaped Sarasota
The first house in Sarasota built from architectural plans was that of Sarasota’s father, John Hamilton Gillespie.
The house was written by Alex Browning, who arrived as a young man in Sarasota with his family and members of the hapless Scottish colony in December 1885.
Browning had been an apprentice architect in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Gillespie turned to him to design a house suitable for a man born in the mansion.
Built by Browning’s father, John Browning and Charlie Jones, the two-story house was constructed from timber that arrived by schooner from Apalachicola. Browning described it as “the most beautiful residence in the county with large rooms with high ceilings, an independent kitchen … all beautifully painted and varnished.”
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The house was located on South Palm Avenue, where the Mira Mar hotel would be built. Behind him, he laid out a two-hole practice golf course, bringing golf to Florida, a sport he married as a tourist attraction throughout the state.
The Browning family were one of the few who remained in the area, and Alex designed other houses and buildings. Among them were the Frances-Carlton Apartments (with Harold H. Hall), still standing at 1221 N. Palm Ave. He also worked on the legendary Tampa Bay hotel for Henry Plant.
Browning’s memoir details the first tribulations the Scottish colony faced, recalling that they were cast into a desert.
Thomas Reed Martin followed Bertha Palmer from Chicago to the area to design her home, The Oaks, in Osprey. Like many who have followed him from Windy City, he fell in love with Sarasota and decided to settle here.
In no time, he has become the go-to guy for homes, hotels, apartments and municipal buildings. His office was initially set up in Nokomis, but moved to a Main Street location in Sarasota in 1922 in time to capture its share of the coming real estate boom.
In 1923 he was hired by world renowned surgeon Dr. Fred Albee to build what the Herald called “NOKOMIS THE WONDER TOWN OF THE WEST COAST”.
Martin has been hailed as a creative genius whose enthusiasm and creativity “already shows the work of an artist”.
He designed Albee’s house to look like a true “Spanish fortress, reminiscent of the days when a man’s house was really his castle”.
In 1924, for Owen Burns, he designed the 15 bungalows that make up Burns Court.
According to John Ringling biographer David Weeks, Martin has interviewed John and Mable Ringling on several occasions to design their grand Italian palace, Ca ‘d’Zan, and has made no secret of his desire for the commission. He had even sketched out some preliminary plans. However, Ringling wanted him to sharpen his pencil a bit and get rid of the 5% fee, which Martin refused to do. The Ringlings then turned to New York architect Dwight James Baum who wanted to come to Sarasota for health reasons and negotiated in favor of Ringling. According to Weeks, Baum had a reputation for appealing to the most discerning customers.
In 1926, the Sarasota Herald boasted that Martin’s design talents had brought statewide attention to Sarasota for all of its beautifully constructed homes and buildings. His out of town designs also benefited the local economy, as much of the material used in construction was made in Sarasota.
The newspaper also reported that its team consisted of a dozen artists, designers and cartoonists. His son Frank C. Martin joined the company after World War I, as did another son, Jerome K. Martin.
In the annual Mail-It-Away edition of the Herald, sent nationwide to showcase Sarasota’s enviable progress, Martin’s homes and buildings have always been featured.
His work in Sarasota was truly amazing. He is credited with more than 500 houses, some important city commissions and commercial buildings.
Martin landed in the Municipal Auditorium building at the Civic Center, a progress administration project, and next to the Chidsey Library, both still in use. The Hazzard water fountain in front of the auditorium is attributed to his son Frank, as are the modernist Walgreens Drug Store and the new Seaboard Airline station at opposite corners of Lemon Ave. and Main St.
Martin worked in Sarasota for 40 years and died at his home in the Granada neighborhood at the age of 80 in 1949.
Dwight James Baum designed some of Sarasota’s most iconic and sustainable buildings.
Along with Ringling’s colorful Ca ‘d’Zan, still the Gulf Coast showpiece, its inspiring buildings throughout the Roaring Twenties helped place Sarasota above and beyond other Florida cities.
The look he skillfully captured in Sarasota was the Mediterranean revival, the Spanish mission, and in the case of Hotel El Vernona, the Moorish look, which gave the new communities a sense of permanence.
The old world vibe that has become prevalent throughout Florida was popularized by Addison Mizner in Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
Dwight James Baum used style to great effect in Sarasota. He was only here a short time, and while he couldn’t match Martin’s output in numbers, his designs are recognized as some of Sarasota’s most iconic.
And although he was commissioned to make a few great houses, his legacy is the hotels, apartments, and municipal buildings that still exist at a time when the wholesale destruction of 1920s structures to make way for hotels and restaurants. Multi-story condominiums are common.
One of his most formidable projects was the El Vernona Hotel for Owen Burns, for many years the largest and most luxurious in Sarasota.
The enormous structure gave the appearance of an inaccessible fortress that could have been strategically located on the Spanish hill, a truly unforgettable sight.
Despite a wave of public support to save it, after years of “negligent demolition” the grand old hotel was razed in 1998 (like the John Ringling Towers) to make the right turn onto Ringling Bridge Road.
Just north of the hotel, another Baum creation, the Belle Haven Apartments, was built by JJ Casabona and purchased for $ 250,000 by Owen Burns shortly after its completion.
The Herald was laudatory in calling it “one of the nicest apartments in the south,” noting that Baum had left nothing to be desired. It was one of Sarasota’s new buildings that offered “remarkable proof of the prosperity the city has enjoyed over the past year.” A private jetty stretched out into Sarasota Bay for guest boats.
Today it sits in the midst of a plethora of condominiums and high-rise hotels, a nice reminder of Sarasota’s first golden age.
This stretch along the bay to 10th Street, now dotted with roundabouts of dubious design and cluttered with a huge array of confusing road signs, was called Central Broadway. The neighborhood had to be a must-see destination near the heart of downtown. The major projects in store for the neighborhood were stopped by the bust at the end of 1926.
Across the street from El Vernona was the new Sarasota County Times factory, another Baum creation, which today serves as the Sage restaurant.
On South Palm Avenue, Baum established Herald Square in Little Five Points, home to a restaurant, upstairs apartments, and retail outlets.
Arguably Baum’s greatest creation is the Sarasota County Courthouse, described after its completion as the most beautiful municipal building south of Washington, DC.
Recently restored by the Sarasota County Commission under the direction of court clerk Karen Rushing – who promises he will still be standing in 100 years – it’s a striking symbol of the county’s colorful past.
Dwight James Baum died in New York while waiting for a bus on December 14, 1939. He was 53 years old.
‘The pride of the city center’
Another 1920s star summoned from Chicago by the boom was Clare Hosmer, who arrived in 1924 just as a major construction frenzy was beginning.
With Thomas Reed Martin, he designed the Lemon Bay Women’s Club in the Prairie School of Architecture, which was popular in Chicago.
A project for the first Presbyterian Church on Oak St. by Baum was given to Hosmer to reduce its size and reduce the cost.
He also designed upscale Mediterranean Revival style homes, and in downtown Sarasota he planned the U-shaped Commercial Court building. Accented by a beautiful courtyard on what is now Central Avenue in Second Street, it has been hailed as “the pride of the city center”. It was shaved in 1972.
Across from the Sara Bay Country Club in Whitfield Estates, Hosmer designed the Villa Serena Apartments in 1926.
In 1928, Hosmer designed the American Legion War Memorial which stood at the center of Five Points until it moved to today’s JD Hamel Park. During these years he was central in giving directions. It was said that the scene was X minutes from the flagpole. It was the focal point of downtown Sarasota, always presented to visiting dignitaries.
Sarasota has been said to be the last city to raise and lower the Stars and Stripes on a daily basis, a task undertaken by the local Boy Scout troop.
Hosmer moved to Houston in 1930 and from there to East Orange, NJ, where he died on May 6, 1940.